As difficult as the challenge of beating the game of horse racing can be at times, the one steadfast rule that keeps handicappers reasonably sane is the word: value. To put it in a more professional gamblers vernacular: ROI, or return on investment. Or it may just be the best way to deal with that sick feeling of getting nosed at the wire is to tell yourself that your 6-1 shot was the best value in the race, and that the 2-1 shot who beat him was a huge underlay.
You hear it all the time on stock market shows and gambling sites, you probably have heard the announcers describe it on poker shows. A player has just been raised all in and although he knows that he is currently beat, he also knows he has many outs to win the hand. This is usually when the announcer – who is a seasoned pro at making calculated calls and folds, simply states that the player is getting 3-1 on his money and with a 45% chance of hitting the ‘nuts’ he is ‘priced in’ to make the call.
What usually follows is that the player thinks the same thing to himself letting logic and mathematics take over in order to make an ice cold call. He proceeds to call, they flip cards over, no dice on the turn or the river, and the player is either out of money or out of the tournament. Now if you have ever watched this it may not make any sense to you why someone would call knowing they were behind in the hand, the answer once again comes down to the risk/return that player is getting.
This line of reasoning is never more true than with horse racing, not because of any special reason other than horse racing is a pari-mutual game where the publics’ opinion of a horse sets the price your going to get at post-time. Unlike a deck of cards or a roll of the dice which has a fixed set of outcomes, there is more nuance to how the public’s perception of a horse will dictate the odds. This is never more prevalent than in the larger more popular betting events like this weekends Breeders’ Cup; where casual fans and outside money will pour into a betting pool. Horses who have ran in Triple Crown races, or may have been featured as a human interest story may take more money than what their fair value is worth.
Yet despite the randomness and unpredictability of public opinion, there are patterns that emerge which draw logical conclusions. One glaring pattern that stands out in this upcoming Breeders’ Cup Classic is from last years winner, Fort Larned. Fort Larned, is an exceptionally talented and fast horse; that is, when he wants to be. In the last two years he has run some of the most impressive races against some of the toughest fields in American horse racing. However, he also has thrown in some disappointing performances that have left trainer Ian Wilkes as perplexed as the people who back him at the windows. For anyone trying to figure this pattern out, consider that there is one consistent takeaway in that period of time, and that is that Fort Larned almost always throws a dud when he is the favorite.
Now, I could have said, ‘knows he is the favorite’ but that would lead you (the reader) to believe I (the writer) is convinced a horse (an animal who can’t read a tote board) knows how to read a tote board. And to add to the absurdity of that logic, not only would Fort Larned be able to read the board but would also have to understand (and benefit) from the incentives of not running a winning race.
Perhaps the reason’s for his consistent flopping as the favorite is not as esoteric as equine sentience. Perhaps the reason may be that as the favorite Fort Larned has a target on his back and may get a more difficult trip when he is the favorite. And perhaps he is the type of horse who needs a certain things to go his way in order to feel comfortable enough to run his best race. In past races he has shown that he needs to break well out of the gate, he needs to be put in the right position on the first turn, and he needs to be up front with the pace setters.
Whatever the reasons are, when the public gets burned by him, they tend to let him go off soon after that at a really nice price. And if you have been astute enough to picked up on this pattern you have been rewarded with a very nice ROI. Consider this, since 2012: if you are in fact the horse whisperer and have predicted correctly which races he was going to win since 2012, you would be sitting on an astounding ROI of $6. Now, if you passed on a trip to the betting windows on days when he was the favorite you would have folded on five races at a measly ROI of $1.37 and you would have only watch him win one race. In the last two years Fort Larned has run in 12 races, won six, three of them Grade 1’s including the Breeders Cup Classic, and he has only gone to post 5 times as the favorite, and only has won once. Now here is the best part, that win came in his last race which was the inaugural running of the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs. The race consisted of a total of six horses with Fort Larned being an overwhelming favorite at .30 on the dollar. That is to say the only race you would ‘regret’ not betting him because he won you would only stand to make a quarter and a nickel for every dollar you bet.
Since winning the 2012 Classic Fort Larned has run in five races, in the first one he tossed his jock at the beginning of the race, (as the favorite). Next out he inexplicably had no response finishing fifth (as the favorite) He then ran in the G1 Steven Foster, this time at odds of 3.30-1 where he blew the field away beating a tough field by more than six lengths. After that he was entered in the G1 Whitney Invitational at Saratoga where again he was the favorite and again ran a very flat fifth place.
This Saturday, Fort Larned will enter gate 7 as the defending champ. He will go up against eleven of the best thoroughbred racing has to offer, and for the better part of two minutes, he will still be the champ. As for where he will be when the eventual winner gets his picture taken in the winners circle may depend on what odds he will go off at, and if he thinks it’s worth it to get his picture taken, and delay a nice cool bath, and dinner with the finest hay and oats on the west coast.